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CHRIS WILSON
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BLUEGLASS



1. Getting Born


Florence. Oh, Florrie. Flo. My auburn-tressed beauty. My freckle-nosed, twinkle-eyed, rose-cheeked, satin-flanked, plump-breasted lover. My chortler, squealer, giggler. Guardian of secret dimples. Moist rapture. Liar. Thief of teaspoons.
Another morning. Seventeen minutes past nine. So say the languorous arms of my fob watch. Paradise. To think of you.
I hold you now. Captive in my mind's eye. Skipping naked from the chaise, your copper mane a cascade down your back. Then you freeze before the cheval mirror, stupefied by your own reflection. And we both gaze, transfixed and doting, on your raw form.
You can see your front alone - jut of hip, swell belly, pert breasts, amber-tipped. Whereas I, sunk in the down pillow, see you all. Fore and aft, silk and fleece, neck and nape, vain and vulnerable, vice and versa, lip and loin, head and tail, lost and found. And you, buff beauty, do not see me watch you, adoring the continent of hillocks, plains and shadowed crevices.
The lemon light through the muslin curtains fires the copper and gold of your hair and bathes your blanched skin.
My porcelain precious. If it were not for you, this would be hell.
Times were when I sought celebrity. In music halls and public houses. Now I should prefer that none had ever heard my name. Joey Blueglass.
Prodigy. Master of memory. Mental monster. I should be retiring and modest as a mole. If I only had my time again.
Yet my face is in the periodicals and scandal sheets. Redrawn, with a certain licence, to show my proper depravity. A portrait, they suppose, must reveal the soul of the sitter. Which, in my case, must be a sour, soiled, sorry stuff. The Illustrated London News made free to redesign my face. To join my eyebrows, narrow my mouth, and loan me a smirk. Perhaps it was a printer's smudge, but to the tip of my nose – hooked and bumped - there was a dollop of stuff, poised perilously to drop upon my velvet lapel. Some criminals are so vile as to be strangers to the handkerchief. Snot, sir? They do not give a damn.
Reynold’s News were moved by a different theory, and had me amiable and fat - chuckling at my wickedness above several flabby folds of chin.
Nor could they agree upon my age. Which I tell you now is seventeen. Contrary to the reports of the Herald, I am neither bigamist nor Fenian, Catholic nor dog-catcher. I say, let the dogs stay free. I should not wish a cage upon another creature. As for Ireland, let her care for herself.
My life has not been easy. Yet, withal, I have stayed a Christian, retaining my sense of humour. There is a fashion, this year, to displace God with an ancestral monkey. We are, says the fad, the distant cousins of baboons, upright, coy in clothes, brazen of words.
Yet I know there is an intelligent maker from the particular design of my own person. I have been fashioned peculiar for a purpose. The Lord is facetious. And so am I. He made me in his image.
To be frank, I am a freak.
We freaks are a diverse species. But we have excess in common. Each of us has some surfeit. My former colleague Josef Richburg, one of the seven leading claimants to the title of shortest man in the world, had a notable excess of smallness. He was three foot two inches tall. His fist could not fill an egg-cup. But in his tiny frame there oozed more condensed pride than is smeared through the House of Lords.
Pascal Pinion had an excess of heads, being born with one more than the usual number. Perched upon his scalp was a small monkey face. It would roll its eyes and dribble, leaking a trickle of saliva down Pascal’s brow. And when poor Pascal donned a cap to cover his deformity, this second head would leak muffled moans against its dark imprisonment.
Annie Jones-Elliot is possessed of luxuriant beard, moustache and sideburns. If she were a gentleman, the world would think her virile and distinguished. Yet, she being a lady, you choose to mock and gawp.
Her companion, Louise Bernard, earns a living by displaying her legs - of which she has four. High on each thigh she has a supernumerary limb. There's a deal of gasping and whistling when she raises her skirts with a flourish to show her additional dangling parts. Some wag can always be relied upon to call for her to dance.
Tell me a human feature and I'll name you a freak that shows it to excess. For we are not less than you, but more. I’ve been dignified to work with the hairiest, fattest, smallest, tallest, most unlikely folk in creation. And what are they like? I shall tell you truthfully. They love and they hate. They breathe and they bleed. And they are never so odd as you think them. And they should far prefer it if you did not stare so rudely on the streets or omnibus, when they are not about their work. If you are chatting to a surgeon at a dogfight, you do not bother him to examine your bunion. So why gawk at a freak in the streets?
As for myself, I am a discreet freak. You could sit next to me in the Turkish bath and not be taken by the proportion, size or number of my parts. If you passed me in the streets, I dare say you'd take me for a common fellow.
My monstrosity is of memory. I am a mental freak.
Some men cannot remember where they placed their wife or umbrella a moment before. I, for my part, cannot forget. Not without effort. My mind is indiscreet, promiscuous, voracious. She swallows every sight, sound, touch and taste. And will never cough it up or let it go. No. She hoards it all. And stores it in my cranium. You would be quite surprised if you saw me. For my head is not notably large. It is a wonder there is space to house all that I know.
And am I lucky to be so capacious? I think not. It is no great blessing. To harbour a mind like mine. For, in truth, there are only so many facts a man can sensibly deploy. Often, it would be good fortune to forget. But my memory affords me no release, nor any relief from knowledge.
And numbers! My mind can never leave them be. She is always tinkering with them, totting and toying. Why, even as I write, and without any conscious intent, part of me has been multiplying my height in inches by my age in years, then squaring the sum, and dividing by the day of the month. The figure so obtained is 856579 and 7/10 ths. And where's the sense in that? You'll grasp the foolishness of my faculties.
And there's another thing I do. Without rhyme or reason, and without knowing how I do it. I can tell you the day of the week for any date of history. Jesus, sir? He was born on a Wednesday. Magna Carta? Friday. The answer just pops to mind. And do you know the vexing thing? Nobody ever knows I’m correct. They think I’m a fool or a braggart.
Sometimes I wish I’d been designed different, without a prodigious mind. It would have served me better to be hefty as a mason, nifty as a sweep or sly as a coster. There's no ready way to earn a living by knowing the
day of the week of every date in history, remembering the curves and crevices of every passing nostril, or getting drunk on numbers.
If you were to lend me a number - like 86, it being the square root of 7396 - I should promptly tell you: ‘'Missus,’ shouted the fat boy.' And why? Because it is the first line on page eighty-six of Mr Dickens's Pickwick Papers. Having read this book last year, I can see it line by line. In my mind’s eye.
39I? ‘'Come, look sharp, timber eyelids,’ added the other encouragingly.'
And there's a deal more that I could tell you. Make of it what you will. By August I840, there were 1,331 miles of railway in the British Isles. And 3I8,7I6 Methodists. Yet George Washington died on I4 December 1799, aged sixty-seven. And the square of 111 is 12321. And the root of 111 is 10.535653.
Few men know all this. It makes me a rare repository. But what to do with all these verities? How do you tot them up to make a moral, or join them to a tale?
But let me start near the beginning.
I do not know if you are one of those unfortunates, like me, who recall the occasion of your birth.
In my case it was Friday 18 November 1845, Islington, London. I was in my usual chamber, discreet if bulging, within my mother.
It was morning. For the dismal dark gave way to a dim rosy light. I began to be shook and joggled again, as happened often.
In hindsight, I concluded that my mother was up and about her business - brewing a pot of tea, frying a herring.
There then commenced some bangs and murmurs above the regular swoosh and gurgle of fluids. I was happy enough, though. I thought no more about it. An embryonic fellow has a relaxed, accepting turn of mind. He grows accustomed to such happenings beyond his jurisdiction. He is happy to suffer the swaying, and takes a modicum of exercise by frisking his pudgy limbs. Despite the confinement and monotony, and unchanging landscape, it is a pleasant place to lounge. And, if a fellow gets bored, why then he can count his toes, or make some rhythmic noises by plucking away at his umbilical. Or he can change the beat of his mother's heart by kicking out with his feet.
The colours are drawn from a narrow palette at the reddish end of the spectrum. But it is cheery and decorative - with those yellows, oranges, reds and purples - and far preferable to the current taste for papering one's walls with sludgy greens and browns.
The temperature of the proceedings is so well and constantly regulated that one knows neither hot nor cold. And a fellow is fed so continually and discreetly that he is spared any aggravation of hunger or thirst.
And being on his own, the little man need not bother with clothes. And has no shame concerning his candid nudity -though his member is so placed as to occupy a central and large part of his downward vision.
I have no hesitation in recommending the place as a veritable Eden. You can well imagine my shock, then, to be thrust and thrown from the garden. Nothing in my brief captivity had prepared me for the horrors of freedom. I shudder, I quake, at the reminiscence.
First, there is a shocking whoosh of waters. Then the walls of the chamber fold me. It is a fiendish shrinking room. You can get some inkling if you recall the feeling of swaying in your chair after a brace of bottles of claret too many. Except that in this instance the walls actually smash against my little person. And I do not know from which direction the next blow will come. I daresay it’s a good preparation for society, but at the time it’s disconcerting.
Then comes worse. The entire surrounds gang up on me, conspiring to squeeze me all over. As though I am a lump of dough being pummelled by an exuberant baker.
A fellow then becomes aware that his head is especially tortured. I don't know if you've ever had your head pushed against some opening, like the gap in some railings, which is too tight to allow its proper egress. It happened to me once in a public house in Whitechapel when two costermongers sought to resolve a dispute about the price of shrimps by forcing my head into a coal-scuttle. The ears are prone to special abuse.
It is not an exact comparison. Parturition is worse. For the ordeal is longer, and - it being a singular experience and radical departure - the fellow does not know what is happening nor what the outcome will be.
The opening proving stubborn and my head obdurate, despite the violent efforts to thrust me out, forceps are deployed. If you imagine a navvy holding the sides of your head between the blades of two spades, then tugging for all of his muscular worth, you'll garner a glimpse of the quandary.
A word about air. If a chap owes another chap seventeen shillings, say, and hasn't the wherewithal for prompt settlement, the second chap might - with the aid of some further fellows - dunk the first party in a horse trough, holding his head below for a minute or so. If you've never suffered this, you'll at least imagine the discomforts.
A baby, being snatched from his element, is thrust into another. Air? What's that? Having lived as a tethered fish, the infant lacks the knowledge to cope. His earlier, sheltered life hasn't prepared him for the airy stuff. He thinks he shall throttle and gag, then emits a frightful gasp. Henceforth, he rapidly gains the habit of breathing. But it’s an abrupt and desperate way to learn.
The light is dazzling. For the chap has grown accustomed to the dark interior.
Then a fellow is struck by the chill. Not to mention the variety of choking, sordid smells. I should be less than candid if I failed to remark that, to a newcomer, the world has the aromatic ferocity of an abattoir in August.
And to ears attuned to the gentle throb of Mamma's tubes, the sudden sounds of the world are a violent assault. Imagine yourself as the clapper in a Bow Bell: you'll conceive the clout of the clamour.
Nor does it help a small man gain trust in the world if he is straightaway slapped around the buttocks, then swung upside-down by the ankle, like a skinned rabbit. Nor would you feel easy if the company then gathered to scrutinize and debate your most personal parts.
It’s true this happens to us all. But my perplex is personal and particular. And it is my constant burden in life. I have the misfortune to remember what others have the tact and grace to forget. Was it all bad? Indeed it was not. For I was met on arrival by two chums. Two of the very best.
I cannot praise nipples too highly. For I think that but for nipples I might have promptly abandoned the struggle and strife of life.
I have never forgotten a nipple, nor a breast. A cigar or brandy just can't compare. To my mind, you can't top the companionship of a raw woman.
I was a mad thing. There is but one purpose in life. One alone. And that is sucking. I suck, gobble, chew, bite, suck. Kneading against warm, satin slopes, licking and chomping, gurgling and grasping, spluttering and spewing.
Oh, ah, eee, ooh, uck, off, ahhh, uuup, urp, aa.
She is possessed of shocking beauty. The fat, brown, chewy, wrinkled column. It fairly clogs your mouth. And the puckered surrounds. And the pliant heavy softness of those mounds, in which a fellow can sink his face. Aargh, sir, eee. And when you've milked one, there's always another.
Many months must have passed in this fashion. It was a monotony of ecstasy. And, throughout this time, despite my best endeavours, I failed to eat my mother.
I am afforded a pillow which, though snug and soft, lacks any of the gravid bounce of a breast. My fingers taste sour and salty, and lack the wrinkled, clogging sweetness of a teat. I can find m them none of the pleasures of pap or nipple. Nor can any milk be coaxed from the harsh, cold tip of my rattle. The slats of my cot yield nothing to reward my lips or throat.
There follow certain frustrations. I dream of breasts, then wake to find them gone. Nor will my wails and whimpers make them be. The frustration is not unlike that at those dismal hotels which surround all railway termini. There is a bell to ring for room service. Yet it sounds unheeded down distant corridors. For the page is with the chambermaid, and the proprietor with his ale.
It was a trying time, as I recall. There was nothing to do but sob, or count the bars of my cot. Sixty-four.
As is the way with children, it took me several months to learn to speak.
Faces peer at me, breathing hot, sour gusts. You can neither suck nor paw them. They lack the beauty of a breast. They are tortured by holes and crevices. In each is a twisted lack, a gaping chasm with twitching edges. They pester a chap's ears.
I discover there is a commerce to this - of trading noise for noise.
If a chap burps, then this quivering slit breaks open and sounds off with interest.
-oof-
'How's my babby?'
-uurp-
'Joey’s talking.'
-urf-
'Say mamma.' A fellow soon gets the hang of it.
- titties -
'Mamma's little Joey.'
- Joey sucks -
A fellow has a lot to learn at the outset. And his task ain't made easier by the deficiencies of his vision. He's abysmally short-sighted. Fortunately, the problem remedies itself without any call for spectacles. But before he gets a sight of distance, he's prone to silly errors - which only confirm his infantile state.
Take Mamma! I swear that for the first few months I thought her entirely and utterly a pair of breasts.
Or myself! A chap doesn't realize he's there. You can't expect a fellow to stop suckling just to devise a philosophy of mind. It dawns slowly. For wherever I went, there I was too. And naturally I took to counting my parts. Two arms, two legs, one widdler. The solid mass that connects them became apparent later. And my head? Well, it’s quite a conundrum. Being as how a chap's eyes face outwards, he just can't see the bit that sees. It takes a time to fathom it out. And it shows that our maker has a sense of humour. Why else set every newborn nipper a riddle that would tax a doctor of logic